Tied together through unexpected encounters

A student describes a touching interaction with a customer that reminded her of the importance of approaching every situation with empathy and compassion.


I was never fond of the forced small talk that came along with getting my hair done, so when I began working as a hair wrapper on the Ocean City, New Jersey boardwalk in June 2021, I dreaded the exchanges I’d have with customers as I tended to their locks.

Each hair wrap entailed hand-tying long strands of colorful string around a strand of hair for nearly 40 minutes, over and over. The prospect of inescapable and awkward social interactions with young girls and their parents was overwhelming; in my mind, the entire process — from the very first knot to the array of beads and charms threaded onto the end — needed to be filled with meaningful conversation. 

Fortunately, my anxiety was relieved after a few shifts, and I grew accustomed to the typical conversation archetypes I could expect from clientele: shy toddlers who refused to speak to me despite my abundance of conversation-starting questions, girls in grade school who could talk a mile a minute about absolutely anything and teenagers who I could bond with over shared interests like college or music. 

In an environment as fun as a bright pink beachfront girls’ boutique on a hot summer day, 

the conversations we shared always remained lighthearted, fleeting and relatively unimpactful. At the end of July, however, an eight-year-old girl with long black hair sat in my chair and changed the way I saw my relationship with customers. 

Parents usually stuck around while their children got their hair done, occasionally stepping away to browse, but always hovering close enough to comfort their kids or steer the conversation. Once this girl was checked in for her hair wrap, her mom walked right back out the door, leaving her daughter alone on my stool. 

I was worried she might panic in her parent’s absence, but she appeared unbothered as she excitedly picked out her favorite string and bead colors for her hair wrap. I wove the chosen colors through her hair as I started in on my perfected line of questioning.

I asked her where she was from, how school was going and what she had done so far on vacation in Ocean City. She answered each of my questions thoughtfully and opened up with tremendous vulnerability as the conversation progressed — far beyond the surface-level script I was used to following with the girls. 

Despite her young innocence, I was taken aback by the intimate struggles she shared with me, from eating disorders to fractured family dynamics and self-harm. She was soft-spoken but seemed to tell me everything she was thinking and feeling, almost as if she had never been given the opportunity before. 

My heart broke as she talked to me so poignantly and with such a mature understanding of complex and seemingly adult topics. I could tell she was fiercely independent, perhaps not by choice, but also desperately lonely and seeking consolation. Although we had only been together for a few minutes, I knew she saw me as that source of trust and comfort she was vying for. 

I tried to reassure her, reminding her she was beautiful, loved and worthy, even if her family and eating disorder made her feel the opposite. I finished out the hair wrap with a flood of affirmations and empathetic reminders that she wasn’t alone in her struggles, doing my best to hold back my tears as hers fell.

When she stood up to leave at the end of her appointment, she pulled me in for a massive, unexpected hug before running out the door and disappearing into the boardwalk crowds. A wave of gratitude washed over me, and I felt indescribably touched by the impact we had on each other in such a short amount of time. 

Our conversations that day, and my often trivial and redundant work, evolved into something much deeper and more meaningful. I saw through the eyes of a hurting young girl that even the briefest moments of connection and kindness can have a profound impact on someone’s life.

In some ways she reminded me of myself, as both a child and an adult, desperate for someone to remind me every once in a while that everything is going to be okay. I don’t know the full extent of what she was going through beyond those 40 minutes, but I hoped that I was able to provide her with a sense of optimism and peace that’s often missing amid a person’s darkest times. 

The next summer when I was working, that little girl ran through the door to find me and ask if I remembered her. Despite the time that had passed and the hundreds of hair wraps I had done since then, I told her I always would. 

We all face challenges and personal struggles, but sometimes all it takes is one person, even a total stranger, to remind a person of their importance and value during difficult times. Her courage to open up to me at that moment reminded me of the importance of always creating a safe and welcoming space for other people because I’ll never know how much they might need it.

I needed her reassurance just as much, and though I’ll likely never cross paths with her again, I’ll never forget the lessons she taught me and the connection we shared in an unexpected place.

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